The Negative Point
by April L’Orange, cross-posted at The Editor’s Pen
There may be a proper literary term for the negative or “black” point. I have no idea what it is. No formal writing or literature class I’ve ever taken has covered it, and it’s a critically important part of a modern story arc that can make your life as a writer much, much easier.
In a nutshell, the negative point is that terrible moment just before the act two break in your book where it seems like all hope is lost. It’s that moment where the bad guys might win, or even do win temporarily. It’s a critical part of maintaining tension in your novel, because without knowing just how bad things can be, the eventual triumph of your characters is less fulfilling.
The key to making your negative point do its job is really challenging your main characters. You can do terrible things to them. You can rub their noses in the fact that they will never, ever achieve their goals. You can kill off other characters they care about.
If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.
Let me pick on a couple of different movies that many (most?) of us have seen for some examples. In Star Wars, the negative point is when Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan Kenobi. Star Wars has a classic, epic story arc, so a fight scene ending with a character death is entirely appropriate. In that moment, the dark side of the Force has won, and all our remaining main characters can do is escape with their lives.
On the other hand, in Grosse Pointe Blank (yes, my taste in comedies is somewhat macabre), the negative point is when Our Heroine tells Our Hero that they can never be together. There is no hope of a relationship between them, because he kills people for a living, and he doesn’t understand why that’s wrong. This is the antithesis of the epic story arc’s negative point, and it would never work in a narrative like Star Wars. But for an anti-hero whose biggest challenge is his failure to relate to other human beings in a socially acceptable way, it seems absolutely insurmountable.
ALL HOPE MUST BE LOST. Or at least close enough that a despairing character may justifiably think it’s true.
The absolute worst, least-fulfilling, most lackluster attempt at a negative point I have ever seen is a fallback device in certain romances: having the evil ex show up. The idea is that this is a challenge to the relationship which is the driving force in the romance. The problem is, in a romance, everyone knows the main characters will end up together at the end, and the ex just doesn’t seem like a threat. There isn’t enough conflict in that confrontation for the story to maintain tension and the threat barely challenges the main characters. It leaves nothing for those characters to triumph over.
Don’t be afraid to push your characters. As a rule, unless you’re writing a tragedy, your characters will overcome even the terrible tribulations of the negative point during the climax of the story. But they have to put everything into overcoming that negative point, or your storyline will feel dissatisfying, no matter how well-written the rest of your book is.
Make them work for it. Your readers will thank you.